June 19, 2022/Ephesians 4:1-16

In early May, Presbyterian Outlook published an article titled “Small but steady witness: Big lessons from little churches.”  The writer, a Presbyterian minister who had served for five years in a small, rural congregation, noted that small churches are often dismissed as inconsequential because they are small – “When churches are doing something right, we expect them to grow!” she wrote.

Then she went on to point out four things she believes little churches do well: Small churches are resourceful and creative problem solvers.  Small churches empower strong lay leaders.  Small churches prioritize relationships.  Small churches live into the reality of loss.[1]  I would add one qualifying comment to her article – little churches do these things well when they live into the calling described by the writer of Ephesians.

The letter is filled with the image of unity and oneness.  “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:1-3).  The writer stresses the need for unity, for oneness, in the following verses, repeating the word “one” seven times in quick succession – one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father.  The language continues the theme from the early part of the letter, in which the writer reminds these Gentile Christians of their adoption through Christ Jesus.  They stand now in unity with their siblings in Christ – neither Jew nor Gentile, but the redeemed of all backgrounds, all ethnicities, all tribes and nationalities, all gathered as one to be heirs, “members of the same body” (3:6).

With a shift in tone, the writer then begs this church to act like the one body they have been called to be.  “I beg you,” he writes, “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (4:1).  As one commentator succinctly put it, “Grow up!”  It’s not enough to be one, to know you are one, you also must act like you are one with each other.  In words that recall for us the language in I Corinthians concerning gifts, the writer urges these young Christians to work as one body, to use their gifts for the development of the body, the church.  Or as that commentator words it:

Growth depends on each part working properly.  If one part fails to function, growth is stunted.  … There is only one body: it can grow, stagnate, or die, depending.[2]

 “The situation of the fledgling church [at Ephesus] is precarious.”[3]  What knits this body together is love, but many members of the body have overlooked their call to love one another in favor of their own preferences and predilections.  They can either work toward realization of the unity God has created, or they can work around it.[4]  The growth of the church will depend on their willingness to put aside their personal goals and ambitions and work together as the body of Christ.

And that brings me back to that article in Outlook.  I thought of Providence as I read it, and I thought about how this community measures up in the four areas of strength the author described.  Her first observation was that “small churches are resourceful and creative problem solvers.”  “Small churches,” she writes, “are flexible, creative, and know how to adapt at the last minute.”[5]  The experience of Covid certainly found us learning to pivot here at Providence, but I sense a degree of fatigue with the notion of change because of the long nature of that pandemic.  As the Session works to identify new pastoral leadership and that person comes on board, change will continue to be a part of the landscape.  I encourage you to approach the need for flexibility with a spirit of adventure.  How can you help the church move forward in effective and sustainable ways?  What have you noticed is not being done because someone else is absent or tied up with other responsibilities?  Where can you step into the void and help build up the body with your Spirit-given gifts?

Next, the writer observes that “small churches empower strong lay leaders.”  Providence certainly has stepped into that space, with lay leaders assuming responsibility for everything from videotaping worship services to unlocking and locking the doors on Sunday morning.  But as the author notes, “In churches with few members, essentially everyone has an opportunity to assume a leading role in the daily operations of congregational life.”[6]  So if you always step forward or say yes when a volunteer is needed, step back and give someone else a chance to serve.  And if you have not stepped forward or said yes when you’ve seen a need, pull your Spirit gifts out and offer them for the good of the community.

Thirdly, the writer declares, “small churches prioritize relationships.”[7]  “At their best,” she says, “small churches are models of Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians to bear ‘with one another in love.’”[8]  Providence is all about relationships.  Just look at the bulletin boards in the hallway; the pictures chosen to highlight the church’s 25-year history almost all reflect times of fellowship and recreation in the community.  Uniformly, when I’ve called on visitors to the church, they tell me how warmly they were welcomed.

But those strong relationships can have a dark side as well.  When did you last invite someone outside of your close circle to join you for lunch on Sunday following worship?  When have you offered a ride to a shut-in to allow them to participate in an event?  Are you so focused on your long-term relationships that you send an unspoken signal to newcomers that your time is spoken for and you’re not available?

Finally, the writer acknowledges “small churches live into the reality of loss.”  “Even one death can shake a small church family to its core,” she writes.  “Sometimes no one is available to step in and fill someone else’s former role in the community.”[9]  One of the great sadnesses of my seven years at Providence has been the faces we no longer see because of death or illness or relocation.  The pure soprano voice of Jill Campion.  The constant presence of Lowry Wilson.  The faithfulness of older members like Cathy Redd and Carolyn Harvill.  The dedicated garden maintenance of Miriam Hendricks.  So many have left our midst in these years, and all are sorely missed.  How do you move forward honoring their memories while continuing their work?

Growing a church takes commitment.  It takes dedication.  It takes love.  It takes a personal decision that what I want is not the goal, but what God wants.  The writer of the letter to the Ephesians knows that love can prevail.  He doesn’t call for the early Christians to feel warmly toward one another, but to act according to their calling. They are to do love by serving one another.  Love is the glue of the community.

In the same way, love is the glue for this community. I’m not talking about love as a warm and fuzzy feeling; I’m talking about love as an act of will. I’m talking about love as something you choose to do when maybe what you’d rather do is get in somebody’s face and scream.  I’m talking about love that empowers and equips all the baptized for service in the kingdom.

Seven years ago, I preached my first sermon as your pastor on this text from Ephesians.  As I close today, I want to repeat what I said to you that day.  The Apostle Paul prayed for the faithful at Ephesus, that they might know the hope to which God had called them.  Dear friends, I have not stopped praying for you and for this community at Providence since Jeff and I first worshipped here with you in March of 2015.  Daily I pray that God will guide you and use you as instruments for unity and peace in this place, as lights to this part of God’s world, that together you might heal hurts, lighten loads, redress wrongs, and bring the peace and grace of God to people in new and real ways.

The first step in that journey, is love.

May it be so here.

[1] Katy Shevel, “Small but steady witness: Big lessons from little churches,” Presbyterian Outlook, May 9, 2022, 18-21

[2] Jaime Clark Soles, Feasting on the Word B/3, 305

[3] Richard F. Ward, Feasting on the Word B/3, 305

[4] Paul V. Marshall, Feasting on the Word B/3, 304

[5] Shevel

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.


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